Here it is folks, our final award for 2016 – album of the year.
It’s been a strange year for music. There are some who think that this has been a fantastic year for Country and Americana as a whole, especially with the mainstream finally starting to churn out the most quality it’s had in a LONG time. On the other hand, you will have people argue that this has been a down year in terms of top tier stellar projects, and I think there’s good points hidden within both sides.
Now, I’m somewhere in the middle on this whole dilemma. In terms of quantity, yeah, I’m not sure we had an abundance of truly stellar projects, but I would argue that we had a ton of great ones. Plus, in terms of quality I think everything has held up fine. Heck, just look at our song of the year candidates and winner if you want more proof of that.
Many people love to clamor about how there’s no clear cut winner for this award this year for any music outlet. Really though, years such as 2014 when Sturgill Simpson completely dominated the field are years that are rare to find. Most years feature a diverse selection of the best albums throughout a calendar year, and while we know that some have received more of the spotlight than others, we’re not running a popularity contest here. The winner of Country Music Minds’ 2016 Album Of The Year is one that really had to connect in all areas.
Now, before we get to the big reveal (assuming you didn’t see the top picture), I will say that no matter which album I picked, I wasn’t going to please everyone. Like I said before, it’s a diverse field, and these past two years have exemplified this more than ever. Therefore, I decided to pick the album I connected to the most rather than the most popular one. Get it? Got it? Good. Moving on…
Dave Cobb’s announcement of a concept album featuring some of Country and Americana’s finest talent stirred within me an excitement that I wish I could feel again. Granted, as a critic I feel that I should go into every project with an open mind as well as free from any bias. I’m human though, and naturally there are projects that cut through my critical faculties more so than others at rare times. When I listened to the project on March 18th, I knew that I had likely found my winner for this award.
Southern Family is not an album that focuses on southern culture as a whole necessarily, but it is aiming for a grand scope. See, the “family” portion of the album is what one really focuses on when listening to this album, and the framing ranges from nostalgic to outright depressing. John Paul White reminds us at the end that no matter what we do, we’re all going to die in the end. It doesn’t make much sense until you dive deeper into this album though.
Times are tough on the album highlight, “God Is A Working Man” by Jason Isbell, and there are times where we face uncertainties in life such as on “You Are My Sunshine” by Morgane and Chris Stapleton. To add to that, while we are all going to die in the end, along the way we’re going to lose loved ones as well, and that couldn’t be better exemplified than on the crown jewel of this album, “I Cried” by Brandy Clark.
But in the end, it’s going to be alright as shown on the closer, “The Way Home” by Rich Robinson and the Settles Connection Choir. It’s a little predictable sure, but it speaks to how we can’t let life stop us from living just because reality sinks in. There’s times of nostalgia and fondness like on the tender Jamey Johnson cut, “Mama’s Table”, and a song like Anderson East’s “Learning” speaks to how sometimes we can use that darkness in our life to help us conquer a new path forward, in essence controlling life instead of letting it control you.
There are moments of tenderness to ease the darkness of this album as well. The one-two punch of Brent Cobb’s “Down Home” and Miranda Lambert’s “Sweet By and By” are great examples, as is the fun stomper, “Can You Come Home” by Shooter Jennings. Although they aren’t meant to be looked upon as “filler”. They all add a lot of color and texture to the driving narrative of this album as well as serve as excellent songs in their own right.
One thing that I always feared with this album is that people would spend more time getting lost in the cast involved with this project rather than the music within, because while a lot of these songs are easy to follow, they also speak to something much more. They speak to the mystery that is life itself. There’s so much more going on with this album than just being a “compilation” album of hearty talent. It’s an album that shoots the moon in a lyrical sense.
Of course, I would be remiss not to mention the mastermind behind this project himself – Dave Cobb. This is a country project sure, but it’s got the kind of rootsy feel to it that almost transcends genre itself. A lot of people have been turned off by the more soul leaning side courtesy of Anderson East, but really, I feel as if the song fits perfectly amongst the rest of the crowd here. I also hate to rely on metaphors to hammer my point across, but it’s the best way there is. There’s almost an old musty feel to this project, but not the kind that emulates the ever so popular throwback sounds of today (odd sentence right?). Rather, the album seems to be grounded into the down home sound that it’s portraying in it’s lyrical content, and really, it’s simply stellar.
It’s not perfect, I will say that. A song such as Holly Williams’ “Settle Down” feel like it’s missing some lyrical details to really drive the story home, and while Brent Cobb’s contribution to this project is welcome, I feel as if Shooter Jennings executes the down home concept better with “Can You Come Over?” However, these are nitpicks of the highest degree. Nitpicks, things that I have to search for in order to offer up some manner of criticism. That’s different from something that outright bothers me, because folks, while this album hasn’t been showing up at the top of many year end lists this year, I would be lying if I said that any other album connected with me more this year than Southern Family.